Essential Knowledge: Part XI

The last post in this series left off with English literature through the Victorian period, with a little overlap here and there, along with a few references to American literature. In retrospect, I probably should have done the literature posts a bit different. Instead of breaking it up into eras, it would have been better to break it into three or four categories, based on the significance or importance of the writer. Getting into this, I did not have a plan for covering literature so things got a little sideways.

The truth is, there’s probably only 100 books and writers that have a claim to being essential to the English canon. If you asked a bunch of well read people to list the 25 books they would take to a deserted island, they would have no trouble cutting down their list. There would be lots of overlap between them, but in the end, there are probably a hundred or so books that truly qualify as essential to an English reader. The rest fall into categories like “important to their genre” or “emblematic of a certain period.”

Anyway, in order to put some structure on this topic, let’s finish off English literature through the early 20th century. The first recommendation here is Samuel Beckett. The reason for this is he is a good example of something that changed in English letters around this time. Writers were no longer appealing to the educated classes. Writing in the 20th century was a social movement and often a political act. Beckett was probably as famous for his influence as he was for his writing. Writers were now pop stars.

You can, if you are a masochist, buy something like the Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett and start plowing through it, but that’s not going to be fun. My recommendation is to come at it from a different angle. Instead, read a good biography of him like Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. It’s probably better to learn about the man and then sample some of his work. Since he was primarily a dramatist, maybe take in a play or rent a movie adaptation of Waiting for Godot.

Another important figure is William Butler Yeats. Like Beckett, Yeats is probably more important for his shadow than his work. If you are into folk literature and traditionalism, then you will enjoy reading Yeats, even if you don’t care for poetry. This is a biography I read a few years ago and I enjoyed it. Again, it is a great introduction to the man and you can use it as a jumping off point for selected readings. I’ll also note that Yeats was a nationalist and traditionalist, something all of us should rediscover.

This naturally leads into the dreaded discussion of poetry, but luckily there is Rudyard Kipling. Like a lot of great literature, Kipling can he had for a song, especially of you don’t mind the ebook format. His poetry is available on-line. Like so many men of his era, his influence extends beyond literature so reading a biography of the man is a good way to understand his impact on the culture. I read this one a dozen years ago, but there may be better ones. It was interesting, despite the writer’s best efforts.

As far as poetry, well, I’m not a big fan of the genre, but others will disagree. The big names are T. S. EliotW. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. Yeats is the giant, but we covered him. I never really cared for Eliot, but I liked Thomas enough to have memorized a few of his poems. In all candor, I did it because quoting Dylan Thomas worked well on the ladies back in the day. They thought I was deep and sensitive. My guess is this still works, if there are any younger guys reading this. Poets used to be lady’s men for a reason.

Another giant is James Joyce. I think Dubliners is one of the best collections of short stories ever written. I’ve read it a dozen times and will probably read it a dozen more before I die. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is also good. I strongly recommend against reading Ulysses, as it is the most dangerous book ever written. Like some others listed here, Joyce really is a giant, despite his relatively modest output. Knowing about him is important. That said, Finnegan’s Wake is just nonsense.

Obviously, Orwell and Huxley are must reads. Both writers get talked about to death by people on the Dissident Right, so there is no need for additional commentary. For Orwell, 1984 and Animal Farm are must reads. I’m much more fond of the latter than the former, on aesthetic grounds. Brave New World is a great book. I’ve made this point a gorillion times, but Huxley was much more realistic about the future than Orwell. I’d also argue that he wrote a better book. 1984 is ugly, like Wagner, while Huxley’s book is beautiful.

Finally, the man who invented fantasy literature is J. R. R. Tolkien. My guess is most literate man got the taste for reading through Tolkien. I still remember the puzzled look on my mother’s face as I spent a full summer Saturday on the couch engrossed in The Hobbit. Even as an adult, you can still enjoy The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but they are probably best read as young adults and then re-read later in life. Classic science fiction works this way too, but that is a topic for another post.

Like so many great writers of the late Victorian and early modern period – yes, I know, you have a different definition of this time period – Tolkien was a fascinating guy. He fought in the Great War and hung around some of the most important men of letters in his day. In fact, his war experiences are what inspired his darker imagery in his work. Here is a pretty good biography of him from 20 years ago There may be newer biographies out now, given the popularity of the movies, but his life is a fun read.

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80 Comments on "Essential Knowledge: Part XI"

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Garr
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I can’t think of a high-status, set-in-the-real-world English-language novel for my kid to read that would be as simultaneously deep and engaging/exciting as Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov or Devils. Bleak House has that kind of status, and there are a lot of great characters and scenes in it, but it’s ruined for me by the sentimental girl-diarist who has the first-person point of view throughout about a quarter of it. Any suggestions, anyone?

Dutch
Guest
The difficulty in recommending older literature to younger readers is that the writing and pacing is very different than the preferences of younger readers today. With that in mind, the vividness of description and the economy of writing in Animal Farm will appeal to youth, IMO. If your younger reader can tolerate a longer, more linear and traditional type of read, and has a real interest in early 20th century British history, try “Ruined City” (“Kindling” in the US) by Nevil Shute. A bit like “Atlas Shrugged” without beating one over the head, and profoundly more optimistic about people and… Read more »
Karl Horst
Guest

I agree with Dutch and I think it is very difficult for todays young readers to connect with anything written during the Victorian times, despite the profound social impact of these authors. The differences between our respective societies, and cultures, makes the connection very difficult. I think you almost have to go back to Homer or Plato since their stories are so old, they read more like science fiction, and have even been modernized in movies like “Brother Where Art Thou” which I thought was wonderful.

notsothoreau
Guest

Well, one issue is that young people have such short attention spans. The main problem is that we have been cut off from our shared culture. So many of these authors expected you to have some knowledge of the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, etc that you miss out on a lot when you don’t share that connection.

Karl Horst
Guest

Short attention spans or just not interested? I suspect the later. It’s actually pretty easy to engage young people, they just have to believe you’re actually interested in them. Amazing how that works. 🙂

Karl Hungus
Guest

Have you seen The Big Lebowski?

Alzaebo
Guest

I was praying nobody would mention Shrugged. I remain convinced it’s a Commie plot. An anti-libertarian vaccine.

I only read the “Big Books In One Minute” version.
Summary-
John: “Dagny, I want to lay your rails!”
Dagny: “Oh John, give me your steel!”

Christopher S. Johns
Guest

Books for boys:

Treasure Island or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, both by R. L. Stephenson;

Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, or Great Expectation by Dickens;

Kim (a great adventure novel about a boy in colonial India) by Kipling (and don’t forget the short stories);

Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer by Twain, and the Red Badge of Courage by Crane.

Christopher S. Johns
Guest

And Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days by Verne.

Severian
Guest

I love these posts! I really enjoy hearing the commenters’ opinions too, even though I’ll be the guy they chew on today…. because I must be the only guy on the Alt-Not-Left (or whatever we are today) who is bored to tears by Tolkien. I made several stabs at it, at different points in my life, and… nope. I fully understand his importance, but he’s like Hawthorne to me — much better read about than read.

Zeroh Tollrants
Guest

I’ll leap on the sword with you, my friend. For some reason, Tolkien has always bored me, as well. I always shy away from discussions on the topic, because I know I’m supposed to love his writings, but…I don’t think I do.

Severian
Guest

Another heretic! Let’s go all the way — Ayn Rand is a fraud; her philosophy is juvenile, and her writing is terrible. 🙂

Leverage
Guest

Me neither. The only fantasy author I read with gusto and enthusiasm was Roger Zelazny.

Nori
Guest

Aw,c’mon Severian,you heretic! Try “Bored of the Rings” by The Harvard Lampoon,written when Harvard still had students with a sense of humor. Who can forget Frito the Hobbit,Goodgulf the Wizard,and the legendary Riders of Roi-Tan?

Alzaebo
Guest

Yes! The best part is the teaser page in front, with the hot Elf about to peel off her clothes…
Read the whole thing trying to find that part. (Spoiler- it’s not in there!)

Garr
Guest

It’s certain chapters in Tolkien that I love — the Tom Bombadil chapters, the Treebeard chapter, the Scouring of the Shire. I guess I identify with Treebeard and would like Tom Bombadil to be my best friend. Or maybe I identify with Sauron and would like Treebeard and Tom Bombadil to be my best friends. The only fully developed characters in the novel are Gandalf and Sam; the Aragorn-Legolas-Gimli trio is very thin and looks to me like a representation of the nice-to-nerds athletic popular kids at school, as soon through a nerd’s eyes.

Dr. Mabuse
Guest
That’s how I feel about Wagner’s operas. I get all ready to listen, thinking THIS time I’ll be swept away by the grandeur that everyone else loves. The Overture starts me off well, then the singing starts, and I find my mind is wandering to what we’re going to have for supper that night, and pretty soon I’ve just switched it off. It’s simply boring. I find myself wondering if all this is really written down and SUPPOSED to sound like this, or if Wagner wrote some sort of special kind of opera that just offered general suggestions to the… Read more »
SkepticalCynical
Guest

Wagner was a ridiculous nerd, he certainly wrote it down. My experience was that I didn’t love him until I both dug deeper into the orchestration (the orchestra is a full-fledged character in Der Ring, often commenting on the on-stage action through the use of other motifs), and saw full staged productions.

He’s now my favorite opera composer, and it’s not even close.

Zeroh Tollrants
Guest

I’m a purist who considers e-book reading a tool of the devil, so I’ll share that nice, early, hardcover copies of Kipling can be acquired on eBay for as little as $3-5.

Member

Sometimes I feel like I’m back in high school. Pretend to read the book, and pick up stuff about it in class discussions, pass the test.

Ron
Guest

Don’t forget Ray Bradbury. Lyrical sci-fi and fantasy. “It was a pleasure to burn”. Fahrenheit 451 is brilliant blend of 1984 and Brave New World

Member

Come on Ron, Bradbury can be a interesting read but you can’t put his name in this pantheon.
Everybody has been recommending Solzenitzen lately. Must be our times, and I hope to endeavor to read him.

Dutch
Guest

The “top 100” is necessary, but you need to do more than that, as your interests take you, if you want to get a full literary meal. My best sources are recommendations from others (getting some here, today), and just picking up books and reading a few pages of them. The book version of surfing the dial on the TV.

Sticking Bradbury on my list, it’s been a few years.

Ron
Guest

I’ve read Solzenitzen’s The Gulag Archipelago. It’s the ultimate permanent inoculation against communism and all forms of socialism. But be prepared. It is grimmer than any horror novel you can imagine, and more so becasue it it true.

Roulf
Guest
I read the Silmarillion for the first time over the holidays and agree Tolkien’s credit is well deserved. Over years of personal experience and hardship he built a massive mythopoeic universe with such life, depth and detailed history it provided an unparalleled setting for his fictional work. That being said, the American in me still takes a little pride in the fact that by the time Tolkien got around to writing The Hobbit, a much younger man in Texas had also created an impressive mythopoeic universe and was writing such gems as “Queen of the Black Coast”, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”,… Read more »
Ryan T
Guest

For me LOTR and Dune covered off fantasy and science fiction fairly well on their own.

Garr
Guest

Those Dune sequels are pretty hard to drag oneself through, though. Heavy in an unresolved, incoherent way, it seemed to me. And I was pissed off that the eerie little sister from the first one turns into a fat monster. Couldn’t she have stayed cute at least?

Member

Gotta do at least a piece of Asimov’s “Foundation”

BillH
Guest

Y’all left out Laurence J. Peter. He unearthed more universal truth than all those others put together.

Karl Hungus
Guest

no love for Conan-Doyle, or Lovecraft or Howard?!

Dutch
Guest

Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler?

Karl Hungus
Guest

oh yeah, them too!

Karl Horst
Guest

Edgar Rice Burroughs. Classic stuff!

Ned2
Member

Might I suggest Part XII?
Humor, from great writers and even cartoonists?
Humor is in my mind an essential part of our culture.

Dutch
Guest

I like to read what was “popular” at the time as well as what was “great”, and especially popular but has disappeared since. It gives me insights to the thinking of the day, which is do hard to do with the filters of hindsight. In that vein, for humor, try Max Shulman.

Member

S.J. Perelman. If you’ve never picked up one of his books, you’ve been missing out. They’re the only things I’ve read that had me literally laughing out loud at times.

Dr. Mabuse
Guest

My dad’s favourite author! I still have his old “The Best of S.J. Perelman”. There’s one passage from “Acres and Pains” I cannot read out loud without cracking up. It’s when he goes to a country doctor and the guy is grabbing him and jabbering something like, “Those tonsils will have to come out, you’ve got tularemia for sure, and your gullet is full of tacks!”

Member
I laughed out loud at another passage from “Acres and Pains”. He was talking about carrying something up hill and he said something to the effect that one of his vertebrae gave out with a crack like a pistol shot. There’s another piece he wrote as well that always brings tears to my eyes. I think it was in “Eastward, Ha”, but it’s the story of a visit he made to Scotland where he hooked up with some drunk who talked him into visiting people he claimed were friends of his. As an aside, I just finished watching The Testament… Read more »
Dr. Mabuse
Guest
Isn’t it in “Eastward, Ha!” where he’s in some far Eastern city, Bangkok maybe, and buys a bag of candy which he takes back to his hotel room, and by morning there’s a line of ants marching through the window, across the floor, up the table and straight to the candy? He becomes determined to defeat these ants, and keeps going back to the candy store and buying the exact same order then trying to devise ant-proof storage schemes, to no avail. At the end, he was standing the table legs in individual bowls of gasoline, with the candy in… Read more »
Dr. Mabuse
Guest

Oh yes, and after his back gives out, his WIFE has to lug the water uphill, while he lies on the porch shouting encouragement to her!

Member

Saki, Wodehouse

Lorenzo
Guest

You need a math, science and technology category.

Karl Horst
Guest

@ Lorenzo – Agreed. I’d also be curious how thezman ticks as a futurist, beyond the obvious “robot future”.

karl hungus
Guest

Zman can speak for himself, of course, but I remember several posts where he was skeptical of the nearness of any big technological breakthroughs.

Member

You can always assess the intellectual and aesthetic acumen of a person by asking the simple question, “Do you prefer Tolkien or Rowlandson?” The answer speaks volumes.

Karl Hungus
Guest

Toking or a Bowl?

Member

After reading the comments through to the end, I’m shocked (Shocked!) that no one listed any Robert A. Heinlein; especially in regards to kids books.
Poddy is shocked too.

Stephen Bayliss
Guest

I agree with classic SF as way to induct younger generation into some non trivial reading I suggest Poul Anderson. Especially the Flandry series. High adventure that makes you think through ethical issues.

Brett
Guest

I dissent. Finnegans Wake is not nonsense, but finding the sense takes much onerous effort with lexicon and reference work. Its sleepsense dreamscape can be teased into the not-quite-understood but engaging nature of our own dreams. The concept is simple: a sleeping mind traverses the night, unmoored from ego and particular circumstance. Joyce’s execution was too hard, and the book has limited appeal. It does have the virtue of making Ulysses seem accessible.

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